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New Civic Center In City's Future

A new home for all City of Escalon departments - except Public Works - is in the making, with the recent approval of the purchase of property of facilities along McHenry Avenue.

In a special Tuesday, Jan. 15 meeting of the Escalon City Council, members approved the deal to take ownership of properties at 2020, 2040 and 2060 McHenry Ave., with shell buildings already existing at 2040 and 2060 and a partially developed parcel at 2020 McHenry.

The project, which will see Escalon city offices, the police department, building and planning and the engineering department relocate, began as talks several months ago and finally came to fruition with the 5-0 vote of the council.

"It is exciting," Mayor Gary Haskin admitted. "We've outgrown the old City Hall, about 10 years ago, there's no place for anyone to work, the electrical system is antiquated and anything to do with computers, it can't be retrofitted."

City officials have been on the lookout for years for a site for expansion and upgrading of administrative offices and have investigated several options. The property on McHenry, though away from the downtown core, is in an area that is seeing rapid development and, as officials noted, the price was right.

Preliminary discussions began in May, when the city was contacted by Colliers International, on behalf of property owner Brian Greer, to see if the city was interested in purchasing any of the three properties on McHenry. The Escalon Community Health Center is at 2080 McHenry and will remain there; the city opted to pursue purchase of three other sites. City Manger Greg Greeson said because the city was in budget talks when first contacted by Colliers, they delayed any action on the matter until July, when the two sides met again.

Various experts were brought in to analyze the proposal and see if it was beneficial for the city and the council, on Oct. 8, met in closed session to discuss the property negotiations. Staff at that time was also directed to look at existing properties owned by the city - namely on St. John Avenue and at the regional park site - to see if it was feasible to build a civic center at either of those locations.

Greeson said the cost was penciled out and would have been much more expensive than purchasing and developing the McHenry sites. Purchase price for the three McHenry properties was listed at $2,975,000. Council also agreed to finance development of the parcels and, with additional funds for ongoing improvements at the Community Center, entered an agreement with Union Bank for the roughly $6 million project.

The Civic Center acquisition and improvements is estimated at just over $4.3 million, with another $1.5 million for the Community Center renovation and roughly $75,000 in various legal, escrow, title and real estate fees for a total cost of $5,962,842.

"It's long overdue," Mayor Pro Tem and former police chief Walt Murken said. "I think the timing is right for us to proceed. This way, we will be centrally located in two buildings, not scattered around in trailers."

There will also be room for expansion as the city grows and more staff is added, he said, but the primary reasons for the move are finally having enough room for existing staff and getting a good price because of the market conditions.

"We could have police and maybe another agency in one building," Murken suggested. "City Hall, planning, council chambers in another building ... we'll see how it fits."

Officials agreed that having just the shell of the buildings will be beneficial, since they can tailor them to specific needs for the various departments.

"We've been in that police department building (on Coley Avenue) since 1978 and that was with six officers," Murken pointed out. "Now you've doubled that but with no more room ... it's time."

Tuesday night's meeting featured discussion of the pros and cons of moving from the downtown area, but the need for added space, the opportunity to finance the deal and the market more conducive to buyers rather than sellers swayed the council in favor of the project. Though he initially voiced some misgivings about it, councilman Marty Van Houten made the motion to approve the purchase and it was carried unanimously.

"You can't argue with the price," Murken added. "The buildings are very nice, there's room for expansion and this time, we're starting with an empty building, we can put things where we want them, not put it together piecemeal ... I don't see a lot of controversy about it."

Haskin said some may argue that the city should have used existing land it owns rather than buy more, but he said that just didn't make economic sense.

"We looked at a couple of sites the city already owns but by the time you talk infrastructure, we couldn't have built for the price we are getting," he said.

He also feels the city moving out of the downtown will allow those locations to be devoted to commercial endeavors.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the city," added Police Chief Doug Dunford. "Both city hall, ourselves, planning and engineering, we're all bursting at the seams. This is a great opportunity for all of us ... it's one of those opportunities that doesn't come along very often."

Greeson said though it took several months to put the project together and it will be probably a year or more before the buildings are ready to move into, it will be worth the wait.

"I've had a few comments so far from people and they have all been positive," he said of the planned move. "I'm sure some will prefer that City Hall stay downtown but each building has about 7,900 square feet ... all city services with the exception of Public Works will be in one area, with everything all in one spot, that will be very nice."

With the space crunch facing the city for some time, Greeson said they have been planning for the move.

"The city and, in particular this council, has been working for a long time, putting money aside to do this type of project," he said. "It's a smart purchase."